Native Skeptic

Native Skeptic
Apache Crown Dancers 1887: http://www.firstpeople.us/photographs2/Apache-Spirit-Dancers-1887.html

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Why Do Native Americans Celebrate Indepedence Day? Should They?

For most Americans, the Fourth of July is a time for getting together with friends and families. Much like any other holiday, often the meaning behind these celebrations get lost over time. When placed under closer scrutiny, it appears that Independence Day is not a celebration for quite everybody. Many tribes of indigenous people lived on this land for generations before any of the Founding Fathers even thought about writing a Declaration of Independence. For some Native American people, it marks the decline of their own people’s unique culture in America.

In a 2008 Weekend America article, by Krissy Clark titled, 'A Native American Take On Independence', the featured story leads off with an account from a Mandan-Hidatsa tribal member named, Charles Hudson, from the Fort Berthold Reservation located in North Dakota. In the article, he describes a little bit what it was like going to the local public high school when he was younger,

"The length you could wear your hair was heavily regulated. Boys could not wear hair past their collar, and that was obviously a direct violation of their cultural norms…But my goodness, that's nothing compared to the radical oppressions that my mother's generation and her father's generation were going through." - Charles Hudson - Member of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe

I cannot help but reflect upon the United States’ history and the Declaration of Independence, in which labels Native people as ”merciless Indian Savages”. After closer review, I realized just how different my perspective of this holiday was, and acknowledged that the majority of most Americans might not share my feelings on this particular holiday. The notion of civilizing the “merciless Indian Savages“ by implementing the ideology of, "Kill the Indian, save the man" still rings a little too close to home for me, which is the theme of a previous post titled, "Diary of a Native Skeptic". The effects left behind on reservations across the country from the federal governments’ attempts to re-educate or “enlighten” Native children by forcing them into churches and boarding schools, in some attempt to deprogram, and strip them of their cultural ways, has left many generations without a sense of personal identity.

Matthew Dennis, a professor of History and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, writes on such things as "Colonial America and the early national United States, the history of American Indians, American colonialism, nationalism, and identity". In the following, he provides us with two great quotes from Clark's article, depicting how Native Americans on reservations managed to turn this negative situation into a positive one,

"It is those who have struggled the most, and who've been forced to be the most creative, that have the most to teach us”

and he continues,

“…we can learn a lot about ourselves as a country by looking at how the Fourth is celebrated on reservations like Fort Berthold.” - Matthew Dennis - Professor of History and Environmental Studies, University of Oregon

Around the time of the early 1800's, the residents of American Indian reservations were under some strict federal rules. Performing ceremonial or traditional dances required written permission. However, objections to any kind of communal gatherings that were to take place on the Fourth of July were not specified. So, at first glance, it would appear as if certain tribal communities were just being patriotic with their elaborate celebrations.

In the following quote, Krissy Clark, gives us an example from her article for the Weekend America public radio website, describing just how Native people learned to be creative in their struggles with these limitations on their way of life,

“Some Indian children were even reassigned new birthdays to coincide with the Fourth.” - Krissy Clark - Weekend America

After re-telling this story in the light of this seemingly new unique perspective to my Mother, she recalled something about her grandfather, “They never knew what day was his actual date of birth, but they celebrated it on the Fourth of July.” It is hard for me to imagine that, just less than a few generations ago, this was the way of life for Native people in America. Just to provide a little perspective of American Indian history, it was not until 1924 that Native Americans were named United States citizens.

For many tribes in America, the Fourth of July is a day of celebration with its' own unique cultural flare, often consisting of ceremonies, rodeos, and powwows.

In contrast, as and co-author, Kathleen Crossett also mention in their Ezine article titled "Do Native American Indians Celebrate the 4th of July?", in 1776, one of the first orders that George Washington administered was the destruction of Onondaga villages that were determined to be “in the way of the new country“, so expectantly, not all tribes may celebrate the Fourth with the same amount of shared enthusiasm.

However, historically speaking, Native Americans have the highest record of military service per capita when compared to other any other group of Americans, so Independence Day also provides an excellent opportunity to honor many of those veterans currently serving and the one's from the past, more specifically, the “Navajo code-talkers” that served during World War II.

In the American Forces Press Service news article, written by Rudi Williams titled, "Marine Creates Native American Powwow to Honor Veterans", the co-founder of the Native American Veteran's Pow Wow Committee, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Shawn Arnold. points out the significance of these tribal ceremonies and traditions,

"A long time ago, powwows were spiritual gatherings to cerebrate certain community events or to honor somebody who had come back from war. Tribes would hold a dance and people would sing songs that reflected deeds done in a battle or songs carried down from their ancestors when they were fighting, such as in the American Indian wars."

"People came here at their own expense because they want to honor their veterans, just as Indians have honored their warriors throughout history" - Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Shawn Arnold - Navajo Tribe

So, after taking a closer look at some of the reasons behind why some people on American reservations celebrate the Fourth of July, the bigger question is not, “Why should Native Americans celebrate Independence Day?”, it's more like…

“Why shouldn’t we?”